The Limits of Belief

The world just is. Our issues, all of them!, come from our limiting beliefs. here are some ways to let go.


Do you see what a powerful thing belief can be — that in fact it’s really through your own choice you’ve decided you can do the one thing but not the other?”

The Magic Circle, Katherine Neville

I’ve got a pile of client stories around this concept—the idea of the self-limiting power of our beliefs—but I’ll just tell you one.

I once worked with a client who worked for a public utility in Ontario. This guy worked for “paternalistic” company—one whose motto was: “This is a company that cares about its workers. Get a job here and you are set for life.”

I hear bells ringing in heads around the world, as well as nods of understanding. We all know where this story is going.

My client had a belief that the motto was “true,” regarding his company.

Then, the utility ran into trouble, and punishment, layoffs, downsizing, etc. rained down from on high. His job became to “let people go, gently.” He shut down emotionally, and he spent months on sick leave.

He had much anger over what happened.

Interestingly, he described himself as depressed, not angry.

Rather than change his belief that his company looked after its employees, rather than shift to “The company has changed and is now engaged in destructive management policies,” he assumed that the company still cared and that he had the problem. He thought he didn’t understand. He therefore wanted me to teach him to be “more controlled.” Needless to say, I demurred.

The belief he is operating under is ancient—“Work hard, do your job, and you’ll have the same job for life.” (This, believe it or not, was something people believed back in the Dark Ages, prior to 1980 or so.)

Because my client deeply believed this, (despite the fact he could talk, on an intellectual level, about the firings, and about how screwed up the company was,) at the emotional level he couldn’t cope. Notwithstanding his intellect, his knowing he was not to blame, his emotional attachment to “the old beliefs” meant that he was “caught.” That’s why he wanted me to teach him to suck up more of the bullshit, so he could go back to work, while never challenging the faulty belief..

Do you see how his beliefs are limiting his choices?

This is a pretty good illustration of how a rigid belief can catch up with us. The pain connected with this, you would think, would be more than enough to get us to change our belief. Yet, rather than challenge the belief, we are drawn to do even more of the hurtful behaviour. Why? Because we trust the belief more than our experience of the results of that belief.

Another way of putting this is,

Argue for your limits and they are yours.

To carry on with the above illustration, my client was also caught in, “I’m a supervisor at work. One of my jobs was to get people off of sick leave. Now, here I am, almost a year into my own sick leave. I should go back to work and tough it out.”

Well, yes and no. He couldn’t just go back to work. If he didn’t want a repeat performance, he first had to re-set his beliefs about work and about his identity.

My point: the company changed and this wasn’t his fault, so beating up on himself was not a solution.
Nor did his issue have anything to do with the company. His issue was how he dealt with stressful situations.

I gave him a copy of my book, Living Life in Growing Orbits, and suggested he read the description pages, for the moment skipping the exercises. We discussed his Rock Beliefs, which got him into the mess he was in, and then we turned to Water Situations.

Water Situations are examples in our life that fly in the face of what we believe to be true (Rock Beliefs). Just as in a contest between rock and water, water always wins, when we begin to understand:

… that we are limited by our beliefs, not by outside forces, AND understand that the solution to the limitation is a change of belief, AND actually make that change, we escape the limit.

I know. It’s not easy to admit that we choose each and every one of our behaviours.

forgettingWhat do you mean I’m missing something?

We choose what we think we can do, and emphatically we choose what we will not do. As I repeat often, we must work at this (all the time!!!) by endlessly discovering what we believe.

As we allow ourselves to unearth and verbalize what we’ve been taught by others, and as we see how we’ve thought about those rules—how we’ve set them in stone—we can then decide what is helpful, as opposed to what was helpful for someone else.

Limiting behaviours are easy to find, as they are always protected under the rubric of “There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s just how I am, (or “it is.”)” or, “It’s my parent’s fault. They made me the way I am.” It’s as if we believe we are compelled to do these things, against our will.

Water stories remind us that nothing is set in stone.

  • First, we learn that anything that gets in our way originates in our own perception.
  • Second, rather than spending our lives failing at changing the world, we can make choices about our approach to the situation, while challenging and shifting the rule(s) that got us messed up in the first place.

Limiting behaviours, like any behaviour, are bad habits. We can choose differently, but only if we choose to pay attention, and turn around, and go another way.

The way out, first of all, requires that I notice

The range of what we think and do is limited

by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice,

there is little we can do to change.

Until we notice how failing to notice

shapes our thoughts and deeds.

Goleman, Daniel (1985) Vital Lies, Simple Truths

I have a client who has a poor relationship with his son. He considers the 19-year-old lazy—“He won’t amount to much” is the usual refrain. Last October my client brought his son to a session. He explained that his son didn’t do well in grade 11, and now was having trouble in grade 12. Dad said that, with the grades he had, he would be lucky to get accepted into a Community College.

The son replied, “It’s not that bad, dad. Chill.”

The father continued to make his weekly appearance, and in April was describing another instance of his “lazy” son not finishing some work around the house. He then said, “Yeah, he’ll never change, and he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to reply to the two Universities that accepted him, either, and I just figure he’s never going to grow up.”

I said, “Whoa. What did you just say? About two universities?”

He repeated himself.

I said, “When the two of you were in here together, I thought you said he wasn’t going to get accepted at ANY school!”

He replied, “Yeah. Two, and three more Universities to hear from (he eventually got accepted at all five.) But he’s so lazy, he’ll probably fail his first semester.”

This father failed to notice his son’s acceptance to University, an in failing to notice, lost the opportunity to re-evaluate his position on his son’s laziness. He also failed to congratulate his son on his acceptances. The dad’s range of behaviour (condemning the son for laziness) couldn’t change, as he hadn’t noticed what he fails to notice.

Another example: lets say that Sue says she’s going to build a better relationship with her partner. They have a disagreement. Sue makes her point while yelling and getting angry. He walks away. Next time, she yells louder. He walks away quicker. Over and over, louder and louder, as Sue attempts to get him to see her wisdom by increasing her volume.

mouth shutIt’s so hard keeping my mouth shut!

The thing Sue fails to notice is that her behaviour is not improving the relationship. Which was her goal. Or so she said.

Sue keeps doing what doesn’t work because she fails to notice that she fails to notice that yelling gets her the opposite of what she wants.

I’ve made my point, right? As soon as you argue that any belief is true for all time and in all circumstances, any behaviour is appropriate all the time, you have locked yourself in to a life of being impossibly stuck.

The question of the day is always, “What am I missing?” This question allows us to look at our assumptions and to look for how those assumptions limit us.

All that you are is a product of what you have thought.
The Buddha

Just a Note! Back in 1994, My first book, Stories From the Sea of Life was published. It’s now out of print, BUT is available as a pdf file. If you’d like to read more of the stories contained therein, amble over to my book site, The Phoenix Centre Press. Once there, subscribe to the site’s mailing list, and you’ll get the pdf for FREE!

In my (out of print) book, Stories From the Sea of Life, the very first story recounts the first backpacking trip Dar and I ever went on.

Here’s the story.

My wife Darlene and I love hiking. As a matter of fact, back when we were dating, a hike was our first vacation activity. We decided to hike South from the Northern end of the Bruce Trail, a system of trails that runs through Ontario. The Northern end is rugged and treacherous; with warning signs posted and everything. We’re both experienced back-packers and we survived with nothing more serious than a damaged toenail.

On day three of the expedition, we came across a hole in the ground. The handy, dandy Bruce Trail Guidebook told us that one could climb into the hole, climb down a wall and emerge on a path that led to a secluded beach. We dumped off our packs and looked into the hole. Blackness.

We had no flashlight along. I started worrying about a descent into the darkness. I whipped open my pack, and stated to haul out all kinds of climbing gear — ropes, anchors, stuff. I decided to lower the packs down first, then find an anchor point and lower myself down on a rope belay.

Actually, I was afraid. I’ll climb anything … so long as I can see where I’m going … so long as I can think about it for a while. My back was to the hole, my head buried in my pack, my mind racing, trying to find a good reason … excuse … to use to let Dar know that I thought that we shouldn’t climb down. Maybe later, or tomorrow … or in a couple of years.

In the midst of my reverie, I heard a voice from afar off. I got up, looked around, and noticed that Dar was missing. I looked down the hole. She was 30 feet below me, and the small amount of light down there was glistening off of her smile. She said, “What’s taking you so long?”

That was the moment I decided I’d be with Dar for the rest of my life. I quickly climbed down. I also did an incredibly difficult climb back up, but that’s another story.

In this story, I was avoiding climbing because of a whole bunch of unstated, preconceived notions. I had clearly not examined the climb itself. I was solely focussed on my imagined fear of what climbing down into a dark, bottomless hole meant.

I equated not seeing the bottom with there being no bottom.

Dar, on the other hand, worked out of another set of beliefs, which allowed her to simply attempt to climb down, and to discover that, far from there being no bottom, it was 30 feet down, and the hand and foot holds were relatively easy and obvious.

Now, it is clear that much of our life, our relationships, our thinking is boxed in by what we have thought in the past. Our Rock Beliefs. Our self-imposed limits.

In truth, there is very little “out there” that is limiting. There is a ton “in here” that we limit the heck out of ourselves with. We get something lodged in our heads, and that’s it.

When you find yourself saying “This is the ONLY possibility,” or “I’m screwed,” or “This kind of stuff ALWAYS happens to me!”, take a break and have a look. Why are you in that box? How are you limiting yourself? What’s another way to see the situation?

All that you are is what you have thought. Until, magically, you change your thinking, and choose another behaviour.

Flow. Choice. Just like Water.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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